[19 November 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
You know what - Sylvester Stallone takes this action movie stuff seriously. Sure, for someone who made a career out of transforming his Oscar winning palooka facade into a fake ‘80s steroid brand, you’d think he’d be a little less devoted to epic stunt spectacle realism. Yet all throughout the supplemental material as part of the Blu-ray release of his Summer splash The Expendables, the iconic 64-year-old talks about believability and practical possibilities. He name checks current events and admonishes the days when he would let humans and other pieces of the pyrotechnic puzzle fall into false excess. Sure, he’s doing so in defense of a film where a group of beefed up mercenaries beatdown an entire South American island, but it’s nice to see someone taking their guilty pleasure product with a grain of sensibility.
In many ways, Stallone didn’t need bravado and brazen bullet ballets to make his point. Bringing together a cast that only the most muscle-headed moron would find disappointing and placing them in a retro, CG-limited dynamic, he manages to reinvent himself and his fellow fight clubbers into myths from a more macho time. Indeed, the best element of The Expendables is its reliance on the testosterone fueled notion of juiced up boys being boys. Between the choppers, the siliconed chicks, the tattoos, the grubby facial hair, and undeniably toned physiques, Stallone amplifies everything the Greed decade thriller embodied, reinventing it as a swarthy combination of a trip to GNC, an Old Spice commercial, a Men’s Health magazine spread, and some very potent non-erotic male bonding.
The film introduces us to the title rogues in the standard sketchbook manner. A group of Somali pirates are tired of dealing with the pussyfooted bosses of a British tanker. They demand monetary satisfaction or are eager to start taking lives. Into their homicidal rage walks Barney Ross (Stallone), his right hand man and expert knife-wielder Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), hand-to-hand combat specialist Yin Yang (Jet Li), demolitions expert Toll Road (Randy Couture), heavy weapons authority Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and mandatory loose cannon Gunnar Jenson (Dolph Lundgren). A few laser guided rounds and a cruel game of slaughter one-upmanship later and the gang is back at their hangout/clubhouse, a bike repair shop and tattoo parlor run by ex-Expendable Tool (Mickey Rourke).
Things have barely settled down when they are offered another job by the mysterious “Mr. Church” (Bruce Willis). They are to fly down to the small island nation of Vilena and overthrow the ruthless military dictator General Garza (David Zayas). It won’t be easy, however. Seems the leader is protected - or actually, the puppet of - ex-CIA agent James Munroe (Eric Roberts). Aided by his henchmen Paine (Steve Austin) and The Brit (Gary Daniels), he keeps Garza in line so that the flow of cocaine into America can continue. With the help of the General’s rebel daughter Sandra (Gisele Itié) and more firepower than a dozen banana republics, Ross and the boys will do their best to blow the bejesus out of anyone or anything that gets in their way.
Over the last decade or so, Hollywood has made it very clear that anything closely related to the action movies of the past has no place in the ADD-addled approach of the new millennium. From fast-paced freak-outs like Shoot ‘Em Up to the deconstructionist delights of Wanted, the initial John Woo-ing of the genre has transformed into inflated egotistical rewrites of the Heroes and Villains Rulebook. Not The Expendables. It its style was any more vintage it’d be featured on an episode of Antiques Roadshow. It’s not concerned with over the top histrionics or carefully choreographed chaos. Instead, Stallone take everything back to its core, when this type of film centered on the man, not the technicalities of the moviemaking.
All throughout the picture in a picture “Ultimate RECON Mode” feature on the Blu-ray, Stallone and his stars discuss the joy and freedom of being allowed to be bad-asses without some pro-PC pronouncements or entertainment excuses. In their mind, anyone who doesn’t like The Expendables can sit and spin on a certain finger. For them, this is the kind of movie that made the genre, from the likes of The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch to ‘70s stalwarts like The Mechanic and the original Inglorious Bastards. From Crews explaining his ongoing love affair with a massive automatic weapon to Lundgren’s sly smile over his classic cock-up with Li, the Blu-ray acts like support to the notion of cinematic chemistry. When Stallone hired these guys, all he had to do was not screw things up. There was such a bond between them that, reading the phonebook would feel like the beginning of some potent private war.
There are some intriguing secrets unearthed as well. Rourke was only on set for 48 hours (he was making Iron Man 2 at the time) and basically designed his character from the leftover bizarro world hairdo on down. Statham was originally going to handle the airplane door-hang sequence, but Stallone copped it, promising him something even better - and he delivered with a 200 mile per hour, shot in real time, aerial nose cone machine gun shoot-out. There were many injuries on the set, and Randy Couture complains that a massive two page monologue he spent days memorizing was suddenly changed at the last minute. Between the various budgetary limitations and the palpable camaraderie between the men, The Expendables became as much a film as a mutual admiration society experience. Even those on the wrong side of the situation seem happy to be a part of it.
Audiences will be more than ecstatic as well. This is the kind of tireless thrill ride that doesn’t let up until its expended every last ounce of energy, all in the effort to move you to the edge of your seat and significantly “wow” you along the way. Stallone may be a lot of things, but he’s not stupid. He makes sure to deliver exactly what his (and his fellow stars) fanbase expect, and then tweak things just a bit so that he’s not considered too old school. Everyone gets their moment to shine, no one is left out narratively or physically. In the end, when buildings are being demolished and long knives are lopping off heads, there’s a grandeur within the gore. The Expendables is celebrating the era where sheer brute force and bevy of one-liners ruled the day. It may not be hip and happening, but it’s definitely a considered cool. Serious or not, Stallone gets it…and if you let it, his homage to heroism past will get you too.